Over many years Ambassador William A. Rugh has proven to be among the most prolific and insightful contributors to the study and practice of public diplomacy (PD). In his latest work, Front Line Diplomacy: How U.S. Embassies Communicate with Foreign Publics, Rugh adds to this record of excellence, providing a comprehensive treatment of U.S. public diplomacy through diplomatic missions abroad. Intended as a text and reference for the student (and likely future practitioner), the book is expertly organized and sequenced to cover all essential aspects of the field and to serve as an accessible guide for on-the-job reference long after its use as a textbook. The 13 succinct chapters, divided into five thematic parts, cover the PD waterfront, and Rugh helpfully closes each chapter with a brief summary of key points. The final chapter provides, in 12 pages, what is probably the best PD primer in print today.
As the role of public opinion in policy making continues to grow around the globe, there is increasing appreciation for the importance of public diplomacy as an aspect of U.S. foreign policy. Rugh picks up this theme, delivering an expert account not only of the "theory" of what public diplomacy is and how to best practice it; he also shares insightful, real-world examples, drawn both from his own extensive professional experience and from the now rather considerable PD literature. Reflecting his own passion, Rugh describes PD as a profession and a commitment, more a "calling" than a "job."
Rugh offers much practical advice for both student and practitioner, including many tricks of the PD trade. As a central tenet, he strongly (and correctly) emphasizes personal engagement — referring often to the "last three feet" maxim of the legendary journalist and USIA Director Edward R. Morrow — in order to build a relationship of trust, essential for public diplomacy to be effective. As Rugh points out, this consideration must also play a role in assessing the use of (and resources to be devoted to) new means of PD communications, especially social-media platforms. Rugh does a great service to the new or aspiring PD practitioner by placing this concept at the center of his work.
Public diplomacy is an activity that by definition takes place abroad. As Front Line notes, PD officers spend an average of 68 percent of their careers in overseas assignments. That context is critical to Rugh's approach, which emphasizes facts and considerations related to engaging foreign audiences in a foreign context. Rugh makes clear throughout that public diplomacy efforts must be directed broadly towards foreign audiences; not just the general public, but also government, media, educational, civil-society and other institutions in the foreign country. Rugh also notes usefully that, in light of the growing dissolution of the boundary between domestic and foreign communication as a result of the digital revolution, important revisions have been made recently to the centerpiece legislation guiding PD — the Smith-Mundt Act — that relax certain constraints on communicating with American audiences.
Rugh focuses on three key factors affecting the practice of PD: (1) the changing media environment (especially the use of social media); (2) security considerations (increased constraints on diplomatic engagement); and (3) the role of the military (greatly expanded since 9/11). In considering the impact of social media on public diplomacy, Rugh notes that, in a world of budgetary constraints, expanded social-media efforts must be balanced against reductions in more traditional PD programs. He also cites the danger of raising unrealistic expectations among social-media interlocutors who might not receive the responsiveness they consider integral to the social-media milieu. While cautioning against over-reliance on social media, however, Rugh underscores their importance, especially as they relate to the PD focus since 9/11 on foreign youth, an audience often most effectively engaged through social media.
On security, Rugh documents the negative impact of increased security concerns on the ability of PD officers to effectively practice their tradecraft, especially on the personal connection, "the last three feet." As U.S. diplomatic facilities have become more fortress-like, and the movements of U.S. diplomats more circumscribed, PD practitioners face new challenges. Rugh also notes the impact on PD practitioners of the 24/7 news cycle, with its demand for real-time responsiveness, and the challenge this poses to a hierarchical State Department bureaucracy.
The third element Rugh sees as central to PD is the greatly expanded scope of activities by the Department of Defense (DOD) which cross over into what has traditionally been considered public diplomacy. In two closing chapters on "Pentagon Communications," he spells out the factors that have triggered this change: the ready availability of resources that DOD can apply to public diplomacy; a broadened concept of "war fighting," which now includes traditional PD areas; and the rise of terrorism with a global reach, along with the broad countering efforts DOD has the means to undertake. Rugh provides here what is, in my view, the most thorough and insightful analysis of this recent phenomenon that has appeared to date. It is must reading, not only for the new PD practitioner, but for anyone who wants to fully grasp the changed landscape of public-diplomacy efforts since 9/11.
Rugh provides throughout Front Line a host of practical tips (in many cases, "warnings") for PD practitioners. In discussing ground rules for engaging journalists, for example, Rugh rightly notes that an understanding of (and adherence to) journalistic ground rules is often lacking among non-U.S. journalists. Rugh's message: press attachés, beware; he also includes a list of helpful guidelines for dealing with reporters. On the important issue of seeking "local voices" in the PD effort (host-country opinion leaders, journalists, religious figures, etc.), Rugh wisely emphasizes that, even if they are not 100 percent "on message," don't try to straightjacket them; they need their credibility, and the impact of such local voices almost certainly will far outweigh that of talking points delivered by U.S. diplomats. On the issue of seeking to place PD materials in host-country media, Rugh cautions, "Never pay for placement," noting the harm done to U.S. efforts in Iraq when it became known that a military contractor was paying some Iraqi journalists for articles. Rugh also helpfully provides guidance on how to deal with interlocutors seeking "personal" views on U.S. policies, underscoring that one should never lie and offering strategies to "deflect" such lines of inquiry. With such an approach, Rugh not only explains how PD tools work, but provides critical insights and reminders ("each post is different") as well as "dos and don'ts" for the PD practitioner.
Front Line includes a discussion of the 1999 merger of USIA into the State Department, and Rugh has done the profession a service by raising this issue here. He posits that the merger was opposed by a significant majority of USIA officers, and concludes that, on balance, the merger has degraded, rather than enhanced, the PD function. Rugh notes that since non-PD officers now regularly take on PD assignments, and PD officers now frequently serve in other functions, there has been a dilution of the level of career experience being brought to bear in today's PD efforts. These issues and others concerning budgets and assignments should certainly inform the State Department's approach to the PD function; but, rather than sharing Rugh's glass-half-empty view, I see the glass as half-full. There are, for example, some safeguards in place to protect PD equities: the PD budget continues to be firewalled from State's operating budget, and the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs has a consultative role (effectively, veto power) in connection with senior PD assignments. Moreover, the insight (empathy?) that non-PD officers gain from a PD assignment is helpful to the public affairs officer when these FSOs move up into leadership positions such as ambassador or principal officer. On the reverse side, having an FSO with PD skills and experience take on a foreign-policy position can, in my view, only improve the policy-making process.
Rugh places proper emphasis on the need for understanding the foreign (local) context in which PD efforts are being undertaken, and the importance of mutual understanding (in addition to policy advocacy) as an element of the PD function. He rightly lauds the role of local staff in the PD effort and underscores the importance of language skills and cultural sensitivity. In this connection, Front Line might have examined more deeply the issue of the vantage point of foreign publics towards our public-diplomacy efforts. As PD practitioners engage them, they bring to the discussion their own mindset, attitudes and beliefs towards the United States and its policies. Indeed, it is particularly important for all U.S. diplomats to be aware of local counter-narratives concerning U.S. policies; to understand that their foreign interlocutors are more likely to be "idealists" than "realists" concerning U.S. foreign policy; and to appreciate that foreign publics and many foreign leaders routinely attribute to the United States a greater capability to take action or effect change than is in fact the case. There is also the important issue of unforeseen occurrences, such as the Wikileaks episode, the NSA disclosures and, most recently, the Senate report on the post-9/11 CIA-enhanced interrogation program. Further treatment of such issues might help a new officer avoid shellshock in a first PD encounter in a hostile foreign context.
To its credit, Front Line covers PD historical and cumulative wisdom and key concepts such as Murrow's "last three feet" and Joseph Nye's "soft power." For the purpose of completeness, I would add two other maxims, both borrowed from historical sources. One, "warts and all," is a reference to the fact that America's imperfections are also part of its story; acknowledging them helps assure that PD efforts are seen as balanced and credible. The other, "being in at the takeoff as well as the crash landing," is a concept that has permeated the decades-long effort by PD diplomats to secure a voice at the policy-formation table. While the merger of USIA with the State Department has helped, the effort remains a work in progress.
These observations notwithstanding, Ambassador Rugh has provided an invaluable resource to the field of public diplomacy, one destined to become indispensible in the teaching of PD tradecraft, as well as a go-to reference for current practitioners in the field.